Bills Searching For Line Depth

The Bills are thin on both lines, but they do have some depth at running back, where Travis Henry, Shawn Bryson and Sammy Morris are all solid runners and will be a good test for Willie Shaw's aggressive run defense.

The Vikings are making their first road trip in a game that won't feature many of the starters but a game that will be have considerable significance. When the Vikings meet the Buffalo Bills tonight it will be the first of two meetings in a month — the Vikes have their home opener of the regular season vs. the Bills Sept. 15, when the game will mean much more.

The Vikings' first look at the Bills won't be the same team they face in September, starting at QB. Drew Bledsoe will be the starter but will likely see only a couple of series, instead turning the game over to veteran Alex Van Pelt and Travis Brown, who has a clear edge over newcomer David Priestley. After giving a shot to both Doug Flutie and Rob Johnson, Bledsoe will provide a new look — albeit a short one on Friday.

The running game has been a question that may not get a full answer in training camp. Travis Henry is pencilled in as the starter at running back, but Sammy Morris and Shawn Bryson each got a chance at featured back last year and likely will again. The Vikings game may be a chance for each to showcase his talents to the coaching staff. At fullback, the Bills have a great receiver in Larry Centers, but both Phillip Crosby and Jarrett Ferguson will get a look.

The receiver corps has become a strength of the team, with Eric Moulds and Peerless Price at the top. But rookie Josh Reed, who the Vikings were going to take in the second round of the 2002 draft before Buffalo snapped him up, and Jeremy McDaniel will all be vying to catch the attention of the coaching staff. At tight end, veterans Jay Riemersma and former Buc Dave Moore head up a group that includes fourth-year man Sheldon Jackson and second-year man Dan O'Leary, who will provide competition.

The offensive line will have changes as well, with rookie Mike Williams joining second-year man Jonas Jennings as a young tackle tandem. However Jennings may not play because of an injury, and the same holds true of starting guard Ruben Brown. Kris Farris at tackle and Michael Early at guard could be seeing relief duty. The other starters include Mike Sullivan at guard and converted tackle Trey Teague moving to center. The whole group needs work together, so it may play longer than normal before giving way to tackles like Marcus Price and Jon Carman, guards Robert Hunt and former starter Corey Hulsey, and center Bill Conaty (another former starter). Like the Vikings, suddenly the offensive line includes several backups with starting experience and a nice blend of youth and veteran savvy that could improve the offense in a hurry.

Defense was the big issue last year, as the Bills allowed seven opponents to score 30 or more points. After switching to a 4-3 defense, the Bills had some problems that linger up front. At the ends, projected opening-day starters Aaron Schobel (second year) and Ryan Denney (rookie) have limited and no NFL experience. They're being chased by Erik Flowers, Kendrick Office (who may start against the Vikings) and Bryce Fisher — three players with a combined four years of NFL experience. The same is true in the middle, where Leif Larson is in his third year with only five starts to his credit and Pat Williams is looking to put together a full season as a starter for the first time in his career. Tyrone Robertson could get an early look at tackle, but beyond that depth is thin here, too, with second-year man Ron Edwards and rookie Justin Bannan providing the next tier of depth at the position.

The team has a new look at linebacker too. After losing Sam Cowart to free agency, the Bills added former Ram London Fletcher to start in between Keith Newman and 11-year vet Eddie Robinson. The unit looks set in its starting positions, but Robinson could face a challenge from Brandon Spoon, a starter as a rookie last year but working through a training camp injury.

The challenge the Vikings will look to attack is the strength of the Buffalo defense — the secondary. Antoine Winfield is another Ohio State cornerback who has made a name for himself on the left side, and second-year man Nate Clements, who was thrown into duty as a rookie last year, has more than lived up to his billing. They're backed up by more youth in fourth-year man Chris Watson, second-year man Jason Bostic and rookies Kevin Thomas and Daryon Brutley. While the starters are solid, depth is clearly an issue.

At safety, Tavares Tillman was a part-time starter last year and rookie Coy Wire could be the starter at strong safety once the season starts. However, for now, the starters are listed as players with little to no starting experience, with Billy Jenkins and Pierson Prolieu asked to be the frontrunners early in preseason.

The fans in Buffalo are excited by the changes being made and, as a team, the Bills could easily be much improved this season. But, with so many depth issues, any key injuries could plunge the Bills back into a trouble area and leave the team with more questions than will be answered Friday.

Everett Linday and Corbin Lacina —
Games are won and lost in the trenches, and the Bills will be an ideal opponent for the Vikings to try to establish a running game against. The Bills have little experience and almost no depth on the defensive front line, an offshoot of converting to the 4-3 defense without spending a lot to add depth to a position that needed a talent infusion. The result has been a novice group that is learning on the job.

In contrast, the Vikings are looking to get their offensive line geared up — a process slowed by the holdout of Bryant McKinnie. In an ideal scenario, players like Everett Lindsay and Corbin Lacina would be backups, able to fill in for a player and give the Vikings O-line some crucial veteran depth. If the Vikings can get the line they want on the field, the offensive line could go from being a liability, as it was last year, to a strength this season.

The Vikings are confident they can get the offensive line clicking on all cylinders, which will be needed to get Michael Bennett and the running game established. No team could be better fodder for that than the Bills, and, if the Vikings want a two-dimensional offense, having a strong running game will be a must.

On paper, this looks like a potential mismatch for the Vikings, with part of the team's game plan being to attempt to run over, around and through the Bills. Will the offensive line succeed? That depends on who is on the field Friday, but it is sure to be the matchup of the game.

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